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100 Best Albums of the Eighties

From synth pop and rap to metal and funk, 100 best albums of the Eighties selected by the editors of Rolling Stone

First 10 entries here span the Clash's polyglot punk, Prince's crossover funkadelica, Afro-bop from Talking Heads and Paul Simon and hymns of innocence and experience by U2 and Tracy Chapman.

This has been the first rock & roll decade without revolution, or true revolutionaries, to call its own. The Fifties witnessed nothing less than the birth of the music. The Sixties were rocked by Beatlemania, Motown, Phil Spector, psychedelia and Bob Dylan. The Seventies gave rise to David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, heavy metal, punk and New Wave.

In comparison, the Eighties have been the decade of, among other things, synth pop, Michael Jackson, the compact disc, Sixties reunion tours, the Beastie Boys and a lot more heavy metal. But if the past 10 years haven’t exactly been the stuff of revolution, they have been a critical time of re-assessment and reconstruction. Musicians and audiences alike have struggled to come to terms with rock’s parameters and possibilities, its emotional resonance and often dormant social consciousness.

The following survey of the 100 best albums of the Eighties, as selected by the editors of Rolling Stone, shows that the music and the values it stands for have been richer for the struggle. Punks got older and more articulate in their frustration and rage, while many veteran artists responded to that movement’s challenge with their most vital work in years. And rap transformed the face — and voice — of popular music.

The first 10 entries here span the Clash’s polyglot punk, Prince’s crossover funkadelica, Afro-bop from Talking Heads and Paul Simon and hymns of innocence and experience by U2 and Tracy Chapman. Further down the list, old-timers like Dylan, the Stones and Lou Reed hit new highs; Public Enemy and Run-D.M.C. kicked out some serious streetwise jams; Metallica and Guns N’ Roses established new hard-rock beachheads; and Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and the Replacements offered definitive statements of postpunk angst. The embarrassment of riches on this list is all the more remarkable, since arthritic radio programming, corporate sponsorship and outbursts of racism and sexism in rap and metal have complicated rock’s present and raised fears for its future.

Best-of lists such as this one are by nature subjective. But rock in the Eighties was like that — lively, varied, contentious and, to some degree, inconclusive. Looking at the best rock has had to offer in the Eighties, it’s clear that there’s plenty of life left in the old beast yet. The next revolution may be just around the corner.

This feature was originally published in the November 16, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.

73

Don Henley, ‘Building the Perfect Beast’

The Seventies were the favored habitat of the Eagles, whose tales of "livin' it up at the Hotel California" vaulted the West Coast rockers to superstardom. In the wake of their unannounced breakup around the turn of the decade, the individual members faced the Eighties with a much less certain hold on their audience. While his band mates — especially his erstwhile writing partner, Glenn Frey — have steered a safe, commercial course, Don Henley has written and recorded songs with a sociopolitical conscience, working at a painstaking pace. He has made only three solo albums in this decade.

Building the Perfect Beast is a meticulously crafted and programmed set of songs about love and politics. The first side is given to personal reflections on love and loss, such as the wistful, gorgeous "Boys of Summer." Side two is more issue oriented, tackling subjects from genetic engineering ("Building the Perfect Beast") to America's reckless foreign policy ("All She Wants to Do Is Dance"). The album's longest and most ambitious piece, "Sunset Grill," describes in disturbingly vivid images a character's sense of entrapment in an evil, convulsive metropolis: "You see a lot more meanness in the city/It's the kind that eats you up inside/Hard to come away with anything that feels like dignity."

Henley's collaborator is guitarist Danny Kortchmar, who has also accompanied James Taylor and Jackson Browne. Kortchmar wrote or co-wrote nine of the ten compositions on Building the Perfect Beast. The arrangements are more varied and generally edgier than the Eagles' easy-rolling songs — a development consistent with Henley's growing politicization.

"Maybe what I'm trying to do is find a purpose for being in the music business," he told Rolling Stone in 1985. "I'm trying to make people think a little bit and be aware of things. Maybe rock & roll is not the vehicle for this sort of thing — but I don't see why it can't be."

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Don Henley

Photos: Eagles' Long Run, From the Seventies and Beyond

72

Marshall Crenshaw, ‘Marshall Crenshaw’

"There was such a flurry of activity at that time that I don't actually have too many memories of making the first album," says Marshall Crenshaw of his acclaimed debut effort, which earned him a reputation as a new master of pop-rock songcraft. "All I can remember is my co-producer, Richard Gottehrer, eating a lot of pasta and me pumping Thom Panunzio, our engineer, for stories about his days working with John Lennon."

After all, only a few years before making his big splash, Crenshaw had been touring the United States as an ersatz John Lennon in various national companies of the successful pseudo-Fab Four musical Beatlemania. Tiring of that well-paying gig, Crenshaw decided to leave the show and work on his own music. By the summer of 1980, Crenshaw — who hails from the Detroit area — was playing his own tunes around New York City as part of a trio, with his brother Robert on drums and Chris Donato playing bass.

Crenshaw's homemade demo caught the attention of Alan Betrock of the tiny Shake Records, who put out a twelve-inch single of "Something Gonna Happen" backed with "She Can't Dance." Producer Richard Gottehrer, then much in demand because of his work with the Go-Go's, heard Crenshaw's demo and had rockabilly singer Robert Gordon cut a number of Crenshaw's songs. One of those covers, "Someday, Someway," became a minor hit (reaching Number Seventy-four on the pop charts) and helped create a buzz about Crenshaw.

Before long that buzz led to a record deal with Warner Bros. Initially, Crenshaw wanted to produce his own first record, but he later agreed to bring in Gottehrer as co-producer. When Gottehrer suggested session drummer Anton Fig and bassist Will Lee for the sessions, Crenshaw insisted on sticking with his own group. "I fought to have Robert and Chris on that record," he says, "because we'd forged a group identity and come to that point as a unit."

There were also disagreements over what material to put on the album. "I originally didn't want 'Someday, Someway' on the album," says Crenshaw, "because I felt Robert Gordon had taken a shot with it already, and I didn't want 'She Can't Dance' on there, since it had been on our Shake single. But I gave in."

Crenshaw and Gottehrer finished the record in five weeks at the Record Plant, in New York City — despite breakdowns by a steady stream of Vox amplifiers, a few of which caught fire. The final album is an alternately rousing and heartbreaking cycle of infectious pop rockers ("Cynical Girl," "Rockin' Around in N.Y.C.," "She Can't Dance") and ballads ("Mary Anne," "Not for Me") — none of them clocking in at more than 3:07.

Critics loved the album, and it sold well. Crenshaw's single of "Someday, Someway" briefly hit the Top Forty, peaking at Number Thirty-six.

"At the time, everyone focused on the Fifties-rock influence on my songs," says Crenshaw. "I was widely compared to Buddy Holly — which is a hell of a nice compliment. But to me the real influences on that record were bands like Rockpile and Squeeze. The first album is very much a product of its time. I wasn't trying to make my pop masterpiece, I was just trying to do a good day's work."

71

Crowded House, ‘Crowded House’

It sounds like it was fun to make. Crowded House's debut album is full of lighthearted, melodic, enormously catchy pop songs: "Mean to Me," "World Where You Live," "Now We're Getting Somewhere," "Something So Strong" and its biggest hit, "Don't Dream It's Over." From start to finish, Crowded House is shot through with the high spirits and sheer tunefulness of classic pop music.

But it turns out that the album wasn't so easy to make after all. "It's remarkable to me that it sounds like a really simple, easygoing album," says Crowded House leader Neil Finn, "because there was quite a large amount of angst involved in making that record."

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Finn, drummer Paul Hester and bassist Nick Seymour formed the band after the dissolution of the underappreciated New Zealand pop group Split Enz, of which Finn and Hester were members. They'd been together for about a year when they traveled to Los Angeles to make their debut album for Capitol Records in 1986 — but still, says Finn, "we weren't really a band at all. Having come from a band that had spent ten years together, it just felt like a collection of three people at that stage."

They shared a house in the Hollywood Hills — hence the band's name — and went to work with producer Mitchell Froom, at the time best known for his work with the Boston roots rockers the Del Fuegos.

"They hadn't really decided what they wanted the record to sound like," says Froom. "Even the broadest terms — like, should there be a lot of synthesizers, or should it be more of a natural thing? — weren't sorted out. We just tried different things as we went along, and it seemed to take on a character of its own as it went along."

"It was bloody hard work," says Finn, "partly because it was all so new to me — new producer, new band, new record company, new town, new everything — that I was really cautious every step of the way. I was wary of what Mitchell was suggesting and second-guessing him, and he wasn't completely confident with us, either."

A handful of session musicians, including guitarists. Tim Pierce and Joe Satriani (the latter on backing vocals only), were brought in, and on "Now We're Getting Somewhere" the experienced rhythm section of bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Jim Keltner was used.

"At the time that was quite a threatening thing," says Finn. "Paul and Nick felt quite sheepish about the whole thing. The next day we recorded 'Don't Dream It's Over,' and it had a particularly sad groove to it — I think because Paul and Nick had faced their own mortality."

The results hardly sounded forced, though the album seemed to be a flop until persistent word of mouth and some never-say-die promotion turned it into a hit eight months after its release. "It could easily have not been successful," says Finn. Indeed, the group's follow-up album, Temple of Low Men, failed to garner significant sales despite strong reviews. "The difference between an album becoming successful and people thinking it's remarkable," says Finn, "and being obscure and completely forgotten about is really slight."

70

Traveling Wilburys, ‘Traveling Wilburys Volume 1’

"This is the best record of its kind ever made," wrote David Wild in Rolling Stone's review of the Traveling Wilburys' Volume One. "Then again," he added, "it's also the only record of its kind ever made."

The Traveling Wilburys' album was one of those happy accidents that was almost waiting to happen. Starting with a throwaway song quickly recorded by George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne for the B side of a Harrison single, the project soon took on a life of its own. After completing the track and deciding it was too good to waste on a flip side, the veteran rockers cooked up a full-length album that not only included some of each member's strongest material in years but also became one of the decade's genuinely unique musical achievements.

From the catchy folk-pop hooks of the first number, "Handle With Care," to the breezy country-rock finale, "End of the Line," the album's chiefly acoustic tunes all have the sound of instant classics. But the real kicker was the presentation. Rather than releasing the album under their own names, the five musicians hid behind a thin cloak of anonymity, attributing their work to a mythical supergroup and adopting hick personae as part of an elaborate charade that included a bogus biography and a custom record label.

The tongue-in-cheek concept was a humorous way of placing the emphasis on the music instead of the big names. Besides offering a witty commentary that mocked the symbols of superstardom, the Wilbury sobriquet served as a sly, preemptive strike against those who might spoil the party and canonize the fun-fest as a Serious Rock Summit.

The five half-brothers of the Wilbury family were hokey but hip, and their individual strengths complemented one another perfectly. There was Orbison (Lefty Wilbury), whose haunting, dynamic vocals are enshrined on the operatic "Not Alone Any More," and who reclaimed his former glory only to pass away shortly after the album became a huge hit. Harrison (Nelson Wilbury) spearheaded the project following his fine solo album, Cloud Nine, proving that his comeback was no mere fluke. Dylan (Lucky Wilbury) emerged from a rut of several mediocre albums with his sneering "Congratulations," the jaunty "Dirty World" and a seeming lampoon of Bruce Springsteen, "Tweeter and the Monkey Man." Meanwhile, Petty (Charlie T. Jr.) acted out the role of eager kid brother, with his fine work on "End of the Line" and the woolly pickup tale "Last Night," presaging his top-selling solo album the following year. Rounding out the quintet was Lynne (Otis Wilbury), the former Electric Light Orchestra leader who handled most of the production chores and also sang the throbbing rockabilly bopper "Rattled."

Describing a typical day in the life of the Wilburys, Lynne remembers how the five musicians usually gathered at Dave Stewart's home studio in Los Angeles and banged out ideas until a complete song resulted from the jamming. "We would arrive about twelve or one o'clock and have some coffee," says Lynne. "Somebody would say, 'What about this?' and start on a riff. Then we'd all join in, and it'd turn into something. We'd finish around midnight and just sit for a bit while Roy would tell us fabulous stories about Sun Records or hanging out with Elvis. Then we'd come back the next day to work on another one. That's why the songs are so good and fresh — because they haven't been second-guessed and dissected and replaced. It's so tempting to add stuff to a song when you've got unlimited time."

While the Wilburys were intended as a lark, songs like "Heading for the Light," "Not Alone Any More" and "Handle With Care" offer idealistic, romantic messages from a fraternity of rock graybeards. "Well, it's alright, riding around in the breeze/Well, it's alright, if you live the life you please," says the opening lyric to "End of the Line." It is a comforting notion indeed, as the uptight, conformist Eighties draw to a close.

69

LL Cool J, ‘Radio’

LL Cool J (Born James Todd Smith) was seventeen years old when he recorded this early rap masterpiece. Rhymes such as "They hear me, they fear me/My funky poetry/I'm improving the conditions of the rap industry" proved prophetic — Radio went platinum, ushering in rap's blockbuster era and heralding the arrival of a superb rapper.

The liner notes say, "Reduced by Rick Rubin," and simplicity was the key to Radio. "We were going to bring it down, break it down, reduce it to its most minimal form — like real low," says LL

But its minimalism wasn't what made Radio a rap landmark. Before 1984, most rappers had simply recited continuous rhymes over four minutes of groove. Rubin arranged raps like pop songs, with verses, choruses and bridges. So that LL's rhymes could fit into this new format, Rubin says, "I would say, 'You've got twelve lines, and you've got to do it in eight.' And LL would rewrite it so it worked in eight. It was just making rap more like songs."

LL Cool J stands for "Ladies Love Cool James"; he became one of rap's first heartthrobs, partly because of his dimpled good looks and macho swagger, but also because Radio includes two of the earliest rap ballads, the cuddly "I Want You" and "I Can Give You More."

One of Radio's most powerful tracks is "Rock the Bells." Oddly enough, the track has no bells on it. LL was set to record the track using a cowbell break from a song called "Mardi Gras," until Run-D.M.C. used the identical best on its "Peter Piper." As LL puts it, "I got housed." Rubin suggested using a percussion break from the go-go great Trouble Funk instead, and LL turned in a ferocious performance; the moment when he yells, "Rock the bells!" and the go-go beat kicks in is one of the most dramatic in rap.

The album's opener, "I Can't Live Without My Radio," became a B-boy anthem. Now that LL has reached the advanced age of twenty-two, he says he is still unable to live without his radio. "But now it's in my car — know what I mean?"

Rolling Stone's Original 1986 Review

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Radio' by LL Cool J

68

The Specials, ‘The Specials’

The Specials found a happy medium between the aggression of punk and the more danceable, upbeat rhythms of ska. Sporting porkpie hats and two-tone suits, the racially mixed seven-member band from Coventry, in Britain, spearheaded a ska renaissance. The Specials' debut album, produced by Elvis Costello, also launched the briefly successful 2-Tone Record label.

The Specials opens with a cover of Robert "Dandy" Thompson's ska anthem "A Message to You Rudy," then dives into more manic numbers, like a gritty version of Rufus Thomas's "Do the Dog" and the band's own "Concrete Jungle."

In his first outing as a producer, Costello captured the spirit of the Specials' frenetic live shows by re-creating a club environment in the studio. "It was a terrific atmosphere," says vocalist Neville Staples of the sessions at London's PW studios. "We just went in and played our show. It was all live in the studio."

In fact, for the song "Nite Club," the band even brought in an audience. "We had roadies, Chrissie Hynde and a few other friends," says Staples. "It was a laugh, because we had a little drink to get the pub atmosphere going."

"We wanted it to be like the first Clash album," said bassist Horace Panter shortly after the album's U.S. release in 1980. "Not necessarily produced, just recorded. Costello was more of an observer, if you like. Suggesting things that we were too involved in to see ourselves."

In addition to its punk-meets-reggae sensibility, The Specials is charged with antiracist sentiment: "Just because you're a black boy/Just because you're a white/It doesn't mean you've got to hate him/Doesn't mean you got to fight," sings Terry Hall in the calypso-flavored "Doesn't Make It All Right."

"We were working as a black and white unit," says Staples. "At the time there was a lot of racism happening. So we just thought, 'Well, we went to school with black and white guys. Instead of fighting and calling people names, let's work together.' So we combined black music with punk. We just mixed the two cultures."

67

Randy Newman, ‘Trouble in Paradise’

"Nothing," says Randy Newman when asked what he had been thinking about when he began work on his eighth album, Trouble in Paradise. "I had no cohesive plan in mind."

A cynical tour de force, Trouble in Paradise sets several of Newman's nastiest portraits of prejudice, greed, ego and small-mindedness against some of the most striking music of his career. "It came to be about places and situations that could be ideal," says Newman, "but are somehow messed up."

Newman is clearly one of pop music's preeminent songwriters. But with Trouble in Paradise, he also mastered the art of great record making. Today it stands as one of the best albums of his career, a fully realized collection of story-songs in which Newman's dark take on the world is fully fleshed out.

Although the best-known song is Newman's love-hate letter to his hometown, "I Love L.A." ("Look at that mountain/Look at those trees/Look at that bum over there, man/He's down on his knees"), Trouble in Paradise is full of clever material. "Christmas in Cape Town," with its disturbingly spooky music, is a poignant tale of racism and mean-spiritedness. In "Mikey's," two old-timers complain about what the world is coming to, distressed by the minorities now frequenting their favorite bar. "There's a Party at My House" sounds like a good-time rocker, until the punch line ("Hey Bobby, get the rope"), which hints at kinky escapades.

The centerpiece of the record is "My Life Is Good," which details the self-importance of a Hollywood wheeler-dealer. Asked about the similarities between the song's protagonist and himself, Newman laughs and says, "If I were that big a jerk, I wouldn't admit to it."

The arrangements throughout the album have a cinematic quality (Newman worked on movie scores to The Natural and Ragtime). "His songs are quite visual," says Lenny Waronker, who coproduced the album with Russ Titelman. "His songs are like little movies. It's like scoring eleven films."

The album includes some impressive cameos: Don Henley, Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, Rickie Lee Jones, Bob Seger, Wendy Waldman, Linda Ronstadt, Jennifer Warnes and Paul Simon all contribute. "His peers have such a high regard for him," says Waronker. "They wanted to be a part of it and help get Randy's stuff out to a lot of people."

How does Newman feel now about Trouble in Paradise? "It's a pretty good batch of songs," he says. "There are things about it I love. Like the first half of 'Miami.' I like the two ballads, 'Real Emotional Girl' and 'Same Girl.' And 'My Life Is Good' — although if I had to do it again, I might not do it the same way. It might be funnier just with piano."

Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review

66

The Neville Brothers, ‘Fiyo on the Bayou’

Keith Richards thought the Neville Brothers' Fiyo on the Bayou was the best album of 1981. Most music fans never had a chance to form an opinion. "I knew it wasn't going to get played on the radio," says Cyril Neville. "So I didn't build up any false hopes. We just made the best record we could."

With Fiyo on the Bayou, the Neville Brothers — singer Aaron, keyboardist and singer Art, saxophonist Charles and percussionist Cyril — set out to capture their undisciplined sound, descended from New Orleans Mardi Gras music, while commercializing it enough to reach a broad audience.

The tracks on Fiyo on the Bayou can be divided into two distinct categories: dance-floor burners (like "Hey Pocky Way" and "Sweet Honey Dripper") and showcase ballads for the band's primo canary, Aaron (like "Mona Lisa" and "The Ten Commandments of Love").

"The first time I saw the Nevilles was at the Bottom Line, in New York," says producer Joel Dom. "They completely blew me out of the water."

Dorn pitched a Nevilles deal to A&M, which initially didn't share the producer's enthusiasm. "A&M thought the Nevilles were too ethnic and too regional," he says. Concurrently, singer Bette Midler — whom Dorn had produced and who is also a Nevilles fan — lobbied A&M on behalf of the band. The label eventually gave Dorn the green light.

A self-admitted "sucker" for Aaron's angelic voice, Dorn painstakingly surrounded it with lush orchestration. "When we cut 'Mona Lisa,' we used the New York Philharmonic," says Dorn, "and Aaron sang live in the booth. We turned out all the lights except for one spot that was focused on a Nat 'King' Cole album. He sang the whole song to that album."

Of course, everyone involved was convinced he had a hit on his hands. "It was one of the few times that I&apos